Nanci Griffith: honouring 'the soundtrack of my life'
Cover Story: (3) Our Town - Iris DeMent or Kate Rusby

War, what is it good for? Absolutely nothing. June Tabor ... No Man's Land

August 2021 update: The war to end war. Tell that to the poor bloody squaddies who were sent over and again to fight and die in conflicts long after peace descended in 1918.
Watching a recent re-run, on Arte TV in France, of depressingly gripping documentaries on Vietnam, I was also struck by how soon western armies forgot how roundly everyone had condemned the evil butchery of the Nazis. They just went on doing the same sort of thing and having the same sort of thing done to them.
War is the theme so let us take another look at, and have another listen to, a remarkable performance of a tremendous song which originally appeared here in 2011 as part of a Song of the Day series.
No Man's Land is certainly one of the finest, noblest songs to be written about war. It honours all fallen soldiers by focusing on one. The magnificent Scottish-Aussie singer-songwriter Eric Bogle wrote it in 1976. The incomparable June Tabor recorded it the following year. This is as beautiful as it is solemn...

Eric Bogle is a superb songwriter. Among his greatest works, The Band Played Waltzing Matilda and No Man's Land stand out as moving, eloquent classics of anti-war but pro-squaddie art. There is not the slightest attempt to belittle the sacrifices made by men who volunteer, or are called upon by their country, to engage in combat. Bogle simply questions the futility of settling disputes by warfare and presents snapshots of the human cost.

Of those two songs, I believe No Man's Land to be the stronger. It makes me feel a little uneasy that Tony Blair, whose more praiseworthy contributions to public life will for ever be overshadowed by his reckless enthusiasm for war in Iraq, shares - or at least shared - my admiration for the song. Its lyrics about man's blind indifference to his fellow man, and to the lie that the Great War was the war to end war, should have restrained him when he and Bush were rushing their nations headlong, and on flimsy grounds, into Middle Eastern conflict. Bogle is also a warm, convincing performer of his own compositions and I have heard him sing No Man's Land live on at least two occasions. For the essential version of the song, however, I turn to the remarkable vocal and interpretative skills of June Tabor. This is a stunning rendition of a noble, haunting song: a piece of music that amply shows why Elvis Costello was prompted to declare: "If you can't appreciate June Tabor, you should just stop listening to music." I doubt if many reading Salut! Live are new either to the song or the treatment. Like me, they may have visited the battlefields of the Somme and found it impossible to shake Eric Bogle's words from their heads while gazing at the monuments and tombstones. All the same, I leave you with this extract. It is the final verse:

And I can't help but wonder now Willie McBride, Do all those who lie here know why they died? Did you really believe them when they told you 'The Cause?' Did you really believe that this war would end wars? Well the suffering, the sorrow, the glory, the shame The killing, the dying, it was all done in vain, For Willie McBride, it all happened again, And again, and again, and again, and again.
Junetabor * Buy June Tabor's album Ashes and Diamonds, which contains No Man's Land, at Salut! Live's Amazon link. I swear I once found a copy on offer there at 79p; it's a bit more now but worth every penny.



We used to play the Eric Bogle version on long car trips when I was a kid. Always makes me cry.

  Enid Bühler

The Corries have done a beautiful version of this song too.

 Bernard Ramsdale

One of the best songs ever written. I prefer the original, although the Dubliners' 'Green Fields Of France' is very good too.


I am a great admirer of the Dubliners - though for the most part up to Luke Kelly's death - but there was always something about the title change that bothered me, as if Green Fields of France sounded a bit more chartworthy (in Irish terms). I always associated that with the Fureys.

Bernard Ramsdale

This is the reply that Willie McBride gives to Eric Bogle. The song is set to the same tune as The Green Fields Of France. Don't know who or even if the song was ever recorded.

Stephen Suffett was the writer...

My dear friend Eric, this is Willie McBride,
Today I speak to you across the divide,
Of years and of distance of life and of death,
Please let me speak freely with my silent breath.

You might think me crazy, you might think me daft,
I could have stayed back in Erin, where there wasn't a draft,
But my parents they raised me to tell right from wrong,
So today I shall answer what you asked in your song.

Yes, they beat the drum slowly, they played the pipes lowly,
And the rifles fired o'er me as they lowered me down,
The band played "The Last Post" in chorus,
And the pipes played "The Flowers of the Forest."

Ask the people of Belgium or Alsace-Lorraine,
If my life was wasted, if I died in vain.
I think they will tell you when all's said and done,
They welcomed this boy with his tin hat and gun.

And call it ironic that I was cut down,
While in Dublin my kinfolk were fighting the Crown.
But in Dublin or Flanders the cause was the same:
To resist the oppressor, whatever his name.

Yes, they beat the drum slowly...,,,.

It wasn't for King or for England I died,
It wasn't for glory or the Empire's pride.
The reason I went was both simple and clear:
To stand up for freedom did I volunteer.

It's easy for you to look back and sigh,
And pity the youth of those days long gone by,
For us who were there, we knew why we died,
And I'd do it again, says Willie McBride.

Ross Anderson

Best version by a mile, although the one where Finbar Furey makes up the words as he goes along has its charms. When I worked in Belfast in the 1980s a play based on the Battle of the Somme ran for a couple of weeks at the Opera House. They flew Bogle from Oz to perform the song live. It was spine-chilling.

Ed Grummitt

Saw Eric do it at Cecil Sharp House, (marvellous), and Finbar Furey (great) but June's version, live at the Enterprise centuries ago, has my heart and soul.

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